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  • The Quest for Redemption:Penitent Demons Leading Christians to Salvation in Medieval Christian Exempla Literature
  • Coree Newman

In the early thirteenth century, an anonymous author of Christian exempla related the story of a demon who disguised himself as a man and entered a church during the celebration of the Servicium Angelorum. The demon disrupted the sacred service with a great deal of commotion. When an elderly man in the church asked the demon why he was interrupting the service, the demon remarked that he wanted to prevent the celebration of the angels. Revealing his true identity, the demon explained that he had once inhabited heaven with the blessed angels, but had lost his place among them. The demon further divulged that he "would willingly climb a burning ladder that extended from earth all the way to heaven" and "gladly suffer torture until death . . . in order to finally be able to regain the place in heaven that he had lost."1

By describing the demon's intention to prevent the celebration of the heavenly angels, the author painted the demon in a very familiar light: deceptive, in his human form, and unholy, in his opposition to that which Christians considered sacred. Yet, the demon in the exemplum above was much more complex than this simplistic reading suggests; the demon professed to the goodness of heaven and, therefore, indirectly contributed to the celebration of the holy angels. The exemplum composer highlighted the demon's emotions: specifically, the tremendous regret he felt about his fallen state. This complex and conflicted demon was not unique; accounts of demons expressing sadness and regret for their loss appear often in exempla collections between the late twelfth and early fifteenth centuries. Despite the prevalence of such ambivalent demons in medieval exempla, demons who express regret for their fall and who long to return to God are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the modern scholarship on demons and [End Page 47] the devil. Indeed, the words and actions of these demons hardly seem consistent with the picture of the universally evil and threatening demons often painted by modern scholars. The emotions ascribed to these demons are familiar because in many ways they mirror those of medieval Christians. While some scholars have suggested that twelfth-century theologians had increasingly and consciously tried to separate that which was considered human from that which was considered demonic, exempla from the twelfth century and later reveal that some contemporary Christian exempla writers were suggesting that significant similarities existed between humans and demons.2 A detailed examination of this type of exemplum, especially the influential Dialogus Miraculorm compiled by Caesarius von Heisterbach, suggests that these stories of regretful demons were actually less about fallen angels and more about the Christians who wrote the stories. In this article, I argue that several medieval Christian clergymen of the twelfth through fifteenth centuries used religious literature as a way to explore similarities between Christians and demons, and that they used these suggested similarities to explore the extent of God's forgiveness and redemption. These exempla further illuminate medieval Christians' concerns about the limits of God's forgiveness and anxieties about the possibility of salvation.

A Common Past, Present (and Future?)

Humans and demons (fallen angels) had much in common. They shared a common history; having once lived in close proximity to God, they both had made decisions that led them away from God.3 They similarly shared a common present; exiled from an environment in which they had lived close to God, they were now separated from God, albeit to different degrees. It is for this reason that both humans and fallen angels expressed feelings of regret, anxiety, and grief. Given that they shared a common history and common present, moreover, it was possible that they might share a common future. This future, and the possibility of redemption, however, was ultimately unknown and was thus a constant source of anxiety for Christians in the Middle Ages. Though medieval writers speculated about the ultimate destiny of both humans and demons, a brief overview of the breadth and variety of their answers indicate that they felt much uncertainty and disquietude with regard to their future. [End Page 48...


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